Pro-Choice Groups See Silver Lining in Anthrax Scare

A fringe element of the anti-abortion movement apparently took another stab at terrorizing the pro-choice community on Oct. 16 when it sent letters claiming to hold anthrax to 170 abortion clinics around the country. The mail arrived as media outlets and government officials fended off a wave of anthrax exposures and wondered whether the attacks stemmed from Middle East terrorists or domestic operatives.

Instead of striking fear into the hearts of abortion providers, the letters may well become a key piece of evidence for pro-choice advocates seeking to have these types of acts defined as domestic terrorism by the Department of Justice. "We've always maintained that the extremist anti-abortion movement practices domestic terrorism on abortion providers," says Vicki Saporta, executive director for the National Abortion Federation (NAF), "and now that the nation is experiencing a similar terror, I hope the government can see our point."

Abortion clinics have been victimized by potentially poisonous letters for decades—not to mention numerous bombings of offices and killings of abortion providers. NAF reports that between October 1998 and January 2000 alone, there were 80 reported anthrax mailings. All were hoaxes, and the FBI has yet to identify the senders.

In an effort to free up more federal resources to investigate these types of crimes, pro-choice advocates have been lobbying Congress to include extremist anti-abortion groups in domestic terrorism bills since the early '90s, but with no luck. The 1994 passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act—which protects reproductive health facilities and their staff and patients from violent threats, assault, vandalism, and blockade—hasn't halted the violence. After the 1998 shooting death of Dr. Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider in Buffalo, New York, the federal government decided to establish a task force on extremist anti-abortion groups.

Despite this tacit admission that these organizations needed special monitoring, pro-choice advocates were unable to get the Department of Justice to apply the label of domestic terrorism.

The upcoming trial of anti-abortion extremist James Charles Kopp (aka the Atomic Dog), who is accused of killing Dr. Slepian, may change the DOJ's position. Kopp first came to the attention of federal officials in the mid '90s, when they tried to develop a conspiracy case against some anti-choice extremists using the federal Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.

Though the judge in that case did not find sufficient proof of a conspiracy, the DOJ did uncover evidence of a number of tiny "networks" running through the extremist movement—an arrangement not unlike the one used by Osama bin Laden's Al Quaeda. It is one of these networks that will play an important role in Kopp's trial. Kopp fled to Europe shortly after Slepian's death and apparently survived off the handouts of a well-organized anti-choice movement.

Also arrested on charges related to the case were two Brooklyn extremists, who allegedly helped Kopp elude European authorities and passed communications to the fugitive from other members of the movement. If it can be established during the trials that these individuals plotted together to aid and abet Kopp, the pro-choice movement may finally be able to prove its theory about organized terrorism.

For now, pro-choice advocates are focused on the latest anthrax letters sent to abortion providers. They were apparently mailed from a Virginia chapter of the ARMY of GOD, a well-known anti-abortion group. "You have been exposed to anthrax," read the missives. "We are going to kill all of you."

County health officials were immediately called in to test the powders; a preliminary test on one envelope came back positive, but final results won't be available until next week.

Priscilla Smith, domestic director of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, already doubts that the abortion clinic mailings will engender the same swift response from the federal government as mailings to CBS and The New York Times. "U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft spoke at length the other day about bioterrorism and how the government is responding to the threats," she says, "but not once did he mention these letters. It was all about Senator Daschle and Tom Brokaw."

As the Bush administration takes on Al Qaeda, pro-choice advocates are rapidly switching gears to make sure this new "tough-on-terrorism" stance extends to crimes committed at home. There are signs that things are shifting within government ranks.

"The day after the September 11 attacks," says Margaret Moore, director of Law Enforcement for the Feminist Majority Foundation's Access to Clinics Project, "I got a call from an FBI agent. He told me that Clayton Wagner—a man who claims responsibility for several attacks on abortion clinics and other acts of extremist violence—has finally been added to the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list along with another well-known anti-abortion agitator. 'Domestic terrorism?' I asked, and he said 'You got it.'"


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